We’ve concluded here a series of posts on the Quest for the Historical Jesus. The last post focused on Anthony Le Donne’s book, Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? (available at fine retail outlets and at popular prices). Anthony wanted to post a comment to my piece, but I asked instead if the comment could be published as a guest post, and Anthony agreed. Anthony’s comment is set forth below.
This is a good time to plug The Jesus Blog, which Anthony co-authors with Chris Keith. Chris and Anthony are kind of the Maris and Mantle of Jesus memory-history (I say this thinking fondly of the 1962 World Series, and knowing that Anthony is a passionate SF Giants fan). The Jesus Blog ostensibly focuses on historical Jesus studies, though Anthony’s mind is known to wander into the territory of popular music and household appliances. One thing I’ve noticed about Anthony is that if he truly respects your work, he makes fun of it. So, as you read Anthony’s kind review of my post, you can wonder along with me exactly where I went wrong.
Larry, thank you for your thoughtful review of my book. I haven’t yet had a chance to read all of the comments, but I plan to soon. This post will simply respond to your review.
A few things come to mind. The first is that I think that Jesus is indeed a good topic for Jewish-Christian dialogue. But it is only one among many. It might also be worth pointing out that that the “historical Jesus” can be a precarious entry point.
This topic has the appearance of being a particularly Christian avenue. As such, the topic of Jesus comes with the danger of alienating Jews from the start. Like a Jewish friend told me over breakfast a few weeks ago; he said, “I’ve been seeking spiritual truth alongside Christians for years now, but there will always be something about the name ‘Jesus’ that will stick in my throat.”
On the other hand, Christians risk much in this discussion, especially when we’re talking about the “historical Jesus”. Historical Jesus scholars have tended to steer toward Arian (not Aryan – although that’s an interesting discussion too) conclusions. It can be a tall order to convince your average Christian (most have Docetist tendencies) that studying the fully human Jesus is a worthwhile task.
My second thought is that I probably need to clarify my argument that memory refraction is (most often) a continuous and incremental trajectory. In making this argument I’ve used the word “reliable”. I’ve gotten so much grief over this that I almost wish that I’d used a different word. But here’s the thing: it’s the right word. Identity (both individual and collective) relies on memory. So when I say that memory refraction is “reliable” I do not mean that we have a reliable window to the past. I mean that memory reliably acts like memory. In other words, memory distorts [refracts] predictably in many cases. It refracts in a way that reinforces identity.
Thirdly and finally, I really like this turn of phrase: “for Le Donne, memory is not a tool – it is the thing he studies as a historian. For Le Donne to be troubled by memory would be like a geologist being troubled by rocks.” I think that this is really well said. As long as historians think that they’re looking for something that existed prior to memory, they’ll lament the evolution of memory. I constantly hear folks retort, “yes, but what actually happened?” Memory is what happened. Mnemonic activity isn’t just integral to the posterity of the event; it is integral to the event itself. It is wrongheaded to think that memory can be divorced from reality.
Thank you for this chance to respond.